Gym hygiene: Science behind dress code

Fabric can lessen chance of transmitting diseases by skin contact or equipment



Molecular epidemiology professor Douglas Call speaks about the correlation between quantity of clothing and disease transmission.

CHERYL AARNIO, Evergreen reporter

Since WSU implemented a facility-wide dress code for the University Recreation Center and Chinook Student Center, some students have questioned the need to regulate the types of clothing students are allowed to wear while working out.

UREC has had the policy since 2001, but it was extended a few years ago to include the whole facility, not just in weight or cardio rooms where the policy was originally.

This summer, signs were posted with guidelines explaining the rules after students expressed concern over being asked to change outfits, and at least one student said she was worried the rules unfairly targeted women.

The justification for requiring the same specifications for the whole center is about improving hygiene, said Jeff Elbracht, director of facilities for UREC and the Chinook. More fabric covering the body is meant to reduce the spread of disease, he said

“Any type of barrier will help to some level in preventing disease transmission,” he said.

Elbracht could not describe the exact science behind the policy, but said the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommended the clothing barrier.

“They say that a clothing barrier helps to remove either skin-to-skin transmission or skin-to-equipment,” he said.

The UREC also consulted with other schools to decide on the rule and determine what policies similar university recreation centers were implementing, Elbracht said.

Douglas Call, a professor of molecular epidemiology at WSU, said the policy makes sense from a scientific standpoint.

“More barrier is better,” Call said. “How much barrier is optimal depends on the circumstances, what the activity is. So those are what we call risk factors.”

Athletics have an especially high risk factor, Call said. One concern is the spread of staph, an infection of the skin or nose that is commonly found in athletic facilities.

The warm, damp and sweaty environment makes it easy for the disease to spread, he said.

“Staphylococcus is not aerosol spread, but it is surface spread,” Call said. “It’s the most common [disease] in those circumstances.”

Elbracht and Call both noted concerns over the MRSA, a viral bacterial infection, which is a type of staph resistant to the commonly-prescribed antibiotic to treat other strains.

Other diseases can be spread but some like cold or flu can be spread through contact or through the air.

Since the UREC put up signs explaining what people can and cannot wear in the athletic facilities, there have been complaints about the policy.

“We started to hear some more negative feedback [last spring],” Elbracht said. “And I think a lot of it just has probably been some changes in fashion styles.”

A clothing barrier is only one way to prevent disease, he said. There is also hand sanitizer around the facility, and they do clean the equipment. However, it can be difficult to determine where staph infections or other diseases originate.

“We know a clothing barrier is beneficial, but it’s hard to know how beneficial it is,” Elbracht said.

The policy might change in the future, but it depends on what the UREC Board decides, Elbracht said.

“We’re really sitting down with our board and saying let’s see how this is impacting people,” he said, “what’s the best way to manage it, what’s the best way to … balance the freedom of what people wear along with trying to promote a safe, healthy environment.”

Editor’s note: This article was corrected on Tuesday, September 25 at 2:57 p.m. to clarify an incorrect statement about MRSA, which is a bacterial infection.